Another Muslim regime that was supposed to be an ally of the United States has fallen to radical rebel groups. The president of Yemen, who was at least enough of an ally to allow U.S. drone strikes against suspected terrorists inside his borders, has fled the country, leaving the capital of Sana’a to Houthi rebels. The Houthis, a Shia militia, are believed to be actively supported by Iran.
The governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan are furious at the Obama administration’s willingness to let another Sunni government collapse on its watch. Their main rival in the region is not Israel, but the Shia theocracy in Iran. The fact that the rebel advances in Yemen could put a Shia regime backed by Tehran in the Saudis’ back yard does not sit well with the kingdom or its Sunni allies.
This development worries the government in Israel, and it should be a concern to the U.S. as well. Control of the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the choke point between Yemen and Djibouti that separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, could put unfriendlies in a position to launch attacks against Israeli shipping — or any vessels heading to or from the Suez Canal. DEBKAfile reports that Egyptian marines seized the strait Thursday to prevent Iran’s proxies from gaining this strategic point.
This is a pattern that’s been repeated several times during the Obama presidency: A Sunni strongman who is nominally an ally of the United States — Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and now Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in Yemen — is driven from power after a popular uprising. The resulting chaos opens the door for violent armed groups to claim power, and those groups are generally less friendly to the U.S. and Israel than the dictators they replaced.
In at least two cases, Libya and Egypt, it is an open secret that rebellion was encouraged and supported by the U.S. Department of State. In Yemen, it is especially galling that Marines guarding the U.S. embassy were reportedly ordered to abandon vehicles and destroy their weapons on their way out of the country.
All this while the U.S. actively supports the Shia resistance to the ISIS invasion of Iraq, which in some areas is openly led by Iranian military officers, and arms the Sunni rebels against the Assad regime in Syria next door.
One potential outcome of what appears to be an uncoordinated series of foreign policy disasters for the Obama administration is the creation of a unified Arab military force, something that has been an unattainable dream in that region for 65 years. An Egyptian proposal calls for 40,000 elite troops headquartered in Cairo or Riyadh, backed by fighter jets, warships, and light armor. The Arab League is supposed to take up the proposal next month.
It is difficult to grasp what the Obama administration hoped to accomplish by facilitating the overthrow of (Sunni) Mubarak and Qaddafi or by actively working to bring down (Shia) Assad. As we’ve seen in the two former cases, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, since checked by the military coup that brought Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to power, and groups loyal to the Islamic State in Libya don’t appear to be an upgrade over the men they replaced. And the weakness of Assad in Syria opened a power vacuum that has been filled by ISIS.
Obama doesn’t have an excuse. Saddam Hussein was toppled and the Taliban routed during the administration of George W. Bush. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have been models of peace and stability since. Instead of learning anything from his predecessor’s misadventures, U.S. policy under Obama has created a new BFF for Iran (Iraq is mostly Shia) and a huge income stream for the Taliban and the Islamic State (ISIS reportedly nets up to $1 billion a year for trafficking Afghan opium).
I honestly can’t make sense of this regional game of thrones. The explanation may simply be that powerful economic forces — oil, banking, military hardware — profit from instability.
Or, looking at this through the lens of faith, it may be a physical manifestation of conflict between powers and principalities — or machinations intended to unify the military forces of Islamic nations into a single command.
Whatever the cause, there will be plenty of conflict to go around in the Middle East for a long time to come.